Forbes Magazine recently named Empathy as the #1 Meta-skill needed for the future job market.

This past year has taught me a lot about empathy, not only because of my new career as an emotional intelligence and leadership coach, but because the world around us has changed.  Now more than ever, our increasingly polarized context requires us to work harder to understand the thoughts and emotions of others and increase our compassion for one another.

Being an Empathic leader helps to grow trust, rapport, and collaboration within teams. Studies show that people perform better when they have a leader that personally connects with them.

I used to think that empathy and emotional intelligence were skills that you were either born with or without.  But after studying this topic more deeply, I’ve learned that these skills can be cultivated with time and intentionality.  Let me share a few ideas that have helped me to grow and increase my own empathy:

  1. Ask the right questions

  • When I first started my career, I would create detailed agendas before each of my 1:1 meetings with my managers. I was totally taken aback when one day, my manager interrupted our conversation and asked me, “How are you doing, really?” This simple question made me think for a minute, and then I hesitantly shared that I was overwhelmed with my new role. I didn’t have all the training and information I felt I needed to be successful.  As a management consultant, we are trained in demonstrating aptitude, knowledge and capability.  To admit that I needed help was hard, but my fear was replaced by gratitude.  Together we spent the remaining time discussing ideas and resources to help me become more effective in my new role.  This experience strengthened our relationship and increased our mutual trust.  From that point forward, I did everything within my power to make my leader and our team successful.
  • When I first became a manager, I started asking this same question to my team members and it was a game changer. Many leaders ineffectively use 1:1 time to go over their personal laundry list of items that they want done, and employees do not get a chance to discuss their real needs.  Leadership is not just about the tasks but about the relationships.  Be willing to ask the difficult questions (even if you may be afraid of the answers.) This requires leaning into your sense of vulnerability in the moment and being willing to put the individual’s needs above your own.   Then wait for their response, which takes me to item #2…
  1. Practice Active Listening

  • Put away your phone (and your laptop!)
  • Make eye contact, look at the other person’s face, lean toward the conversation. Listen not only to the words being said, but to the nonverbal cues, emotions, and values of what is being shared.
  • Try not to think about what you are going to say next. One of the best managers I had, When I once told him that I had that I forgot what I was going to say, said “Good, that means you were actually listening!” Listen with the intent to understand, not just to respond. When you actively listen, you create an environment of psychological safety for the other person.
  1. Become friends with people different from you – inside and outside of work

  • Be curious as to their viewpoints, the things important to them, and why. As we go through life, we usually try to find people like us – those in our same field, perhaps our own religion, race, political and socio-economic backgrounds. We are naturally most comfortable with people that we believe are the same as us. Consider learning about a new religion, travel the world and visit cultures different from your own.   Invite new people to a conversation or even to lunch.
  • Last fall, one of my close friends visited our home in the middle of the heated presidential elections. I turned to her and asked her what she thought of the presidential race, and my husband immediately kicked me under the table, knowing that we were on opposing sides.  We continued the conversation with both of us listening to and understanding one another’s viewpoints, and by the end we both learned a lot from the discussion.  The goal isn’t being right, relationships should come first.   If you truly respect one another, you should be able to have difficult conversations and still walk away with peace, love and a deeper understanding.
  1. Own and Challenge your prejudices and find common ground

  • One of my early lessons about this insight was from a friend in high school who wore the traditional hijab, the headcover and scarf worn by many Muslim women around the world. In the Western environment I grew up in, I viewed this as antithetical to my beliefs about women deserving equal treatment and to me, it represented oppression.  Once we became friends, she shared how much she loved wearing it and why it was a symbol of God’s love for her and protection from others who may want to judge her for her physical beauty rather than her character.  It was eye-opening when I learned her perspective, and this new awareness broke the stereotype I had formed in my own head.  People don’t really change their beliefs until they have a personal positive experience with someone who believes differently from them.
  1. Finally, remember the Platinum Rule.

  • The Golden Rule about treating others the way you want to be treated is a famous adage that has roots in almost every world religion and culture, but it falls short of its real intention. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” So how do we figure out how they want to be treated?
  • Ask them. Observe their reactions when you did or said something that may not have gone over well.  (Believe me, they will tell you in their actions louder than their words.) Make it your business to find out how others want to be treated. This is difficult because people often do not feel comfortable sharing their boundaries or needs, then they will also not say anything when they feel they have been disrespected.  Speak up and communicate your own preferences and this will help encourage others to do the same.
  • Strive for the Platinum Rule but never go below the standard of the Golden Rule! (Credits to my friend Sangeeta Bakshi for this one!)

We will occasionally make mistakes and perhaps unintentionally offend someone.  That’s ok: take the time to understand what went wrong and keep asking questions. We can continue to grow, learn and become better people as we strive to increase our empathy.

-Sheryl

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